Hosting a Legislative Breakfast
Inviting legislators to meet you and your clients in a less formal, more social setting is an excellent way to build and grow a relationship, impress upon them the fine work you are doing on behalf of their constituents, and become a trusted resource they and their staff turn to when they need information. While that sounds like a tall order, it is remarkably easy to do.
Breakfasts are a common way to host legislators. Breakfast is usually cheaper than offering other meals, easier to offer at your organization, busy people tend to have early mornings free, and it allows legislators to come in and leave as is convenient.
Your goal here is not a heavy sell – you want them to leave with a smile, having enjoyed themselves and found new partners in serving their constituents. It is best not to highlight current crises, but to emphasize strengths. They should leave with just enough written information to be useful; your contact information is the most important part of that written information.
Generally legislative breakfasts start at 7:30 am and end by 9:00 or 10:00 am. It is best to hold them at your organization – this makes the best impression, especially for local legislators. Legislative breakfasts held at the LOB can still be effective, but tend to run together in legislators' minds. Just coffee and muffins or fruit are fine; getting too fancy can take away from your message. Food that is easy to eat standing and talking is best – avoid anything that needs spreading or could drip on a suit or tie. If children will be attending, consider their needs – have kid-friendly food, and an area where they can play, draw, etc. still within sight of their parents or caregivers but without interrupting legislators' conversations. If you are lucky enough to have access to the services of a lobbyist, make sure they are able to come – that allows the linkage between your good work and, months later, your advocacy at the LOB.
Getting started –
Who to invite – Be expansive in your guest list. Invite your local legislators, from committees that oversee your program area, leadership and anyone who has paid special attention to your program or someone in your organization has a personal relationship with. I just invite all legislators – it’s safer. Make it clear that it is OK to send an aide. Invite executive branch policymakers – those that oversee your contracts, regulate your organization, etc. Invite your funders, community leaders and local municipal elected officials. Be sure to include your lobbyist if you have one. If you are part of a coalition, invite your partners.
Invite clients, volunteers, your Board of Directors and staff from across program areas. Have lots of people to greet legislators.
Postcards are fine as are letters on your letterhead. Make it simple –
Join us for a legislative breakfast
Include directions and parking info with the invitation – don't direct them to a website. You can include a response card or page with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, but it isn't necessary. You can include an organizational brochure, but don’t include more info about you than that.
A week before – divide up the jobs:
That day –
Be prepared to greet legislators at 7:30 if that’s when your invitation says you are starting. Don't assume they will be late. On the other hand, allow for some who come later or choose to stay late. If a legislator wants to stay and talk, give him your time.
Set up the room for talking; definitely not lecture style pointing at a podium. Have a few chairs in small groups or against the walls. Remove or push any big tables to the wall. Put the coffee at the other end of the room from the entrance, so they have to walk by several people to get their caffeine. If children will be present, set up their area and food ahead.
Have nametags for every client and staff person. Have them available for legislators at the front door, but don’t insist.
Have plenty of information packets available. The most important piece of the packet is your contact information; it should be in several places, e.g. business card(s) and print addresses on each piece of paper, as the packet may not stay together once it gets to the office. Include everything - name, title, organization, address, phone numbers, FAX, email and website, if available. They don’t need every staff person’s card, but be sure that the numbers they have will get them a quick response. Do not overwhelm them with information; you wouldn't believe how much they get. I like to include everything in a folder – expecting them to pick up a copy of each of ten or twenty papers and brochures is not realistic and creates bottlenecks at the table. Folders can easily be put on bookcases or in file folders at the office. Have more packets than you think they will need; they may take extras for staff, constituents or colleagues who couldn't make it.
Take pictures of legislators with clients and staff if you can, especially for digital formats. Try to get everyone. Also take some crowd shots. These can be sent along with thank you notes and used in your newsletters/communications/website.
Introduce yourself to each legislator. Don’t assume they will remember you; they meet thousands of people. A nice way to start off is, "It’s so good to see you again Senator." If legislators start to huddle in a corner and talk shop, accept it for a while. If it goes on, gently join the group and interrupt. Be polite, but engage one or several in a separate conversation bringing them back to your services. For example, walk up with a client or staff person and say, "Senator Jones, I want to make sure you meet Ms. Smith." Never argue with a legislator.
They may send a legislative aide in their place. This is not a bad thing; in fact it can be an excellent opportunity. Treat them just as you would a legislator. Unlike legislators, aides are full time at the Capitol and often are intimately involved in policy decisions. Get their names as well and send thank you's to both them and their legislator afterward.
Listen carefully to what they are telling you, clarify anything you don’t understand. Ask how you can be effective and helpful to them. Comments might include "This is going to be a difficult budget year." Your response, "How can we help you ensure that vital services like this remain available for the people who need them?" Share any concerns that you hear with your advocacy partners – lobbyist, coalition members, etc.
Do not use jargon or acronyms – not every legislator is an expert on your program area (nor should they be). Don't make them ask. If they ask a question, get them the answer either from someone in the room or promise to get the answer to them as soon as possible. Then follow up – include the answer in your thank you letter.
Again, this is mainly informal. Many legislators will not stay for the remarks, and they should come away with the messages without having to stay. Keep remarks brief – 15 minutes maximum. Have the director thank them for coming, a client talk about how important the services are and maybe a direct service staff person or volunteer describe their job. Thank them again at the end not only for coming but also for their support. Emphasize that you want to create a relationship, that they should call you any time they need information. In describing relevant legislative issues, start positive, and do not limit yourself to your organization’s funding – talk about the needs of your clients, other organizations that you and your clients rely on. Remind them to get an information packet before they leave.
You can follow up with a tour of the facility near the end of the timeframe. Think through traffic and client confidentiality issues. A leisurely walk is the pace you are going for. Have your designated guide practice before and be sure that staff on the tour route know you are coming.
Check list – what to have in the room
Follow up –
Send thank you letters to everyone who attended with photos. Include a fact sheet or newsletter or brochure that wasn’t in the packet. Reiterate your offer to help. Include your contact information on the letter and include a business card – you can write on the back, "Call me anytime." Include any specific information about their visit, e.g. "I’ve included a picture of you and Ms. Smith, our client" or "I looked into your question and found that . . . ". See the sample thank you letter for legislators who attended.
Send a letter to legislators and others who did not attend. Include a packet, with all the above contact information. See the sample letter to legislators who did not attend.
Take a few moments to consider what went right and what didn't. Low attendance because of snow is out of your control, but maybe you need to do a better job of following up on invitations or send them earlier. Ask your staff, clients and volunteers who attended for their feedback. Often you do everything right and it just takes time for people to get to know you. Make it better next year.